1. Plan Early. It’s a good idea to start organizing well before your gathering – the more expected to attend, the earlier you’ll need to begin. Most folks start form a plan a year (or more) in advance of their event.
2. Don’t Overplan. Remember, your gathering is about connecting people. When attendees look back at your reunion, what they’ll cherish most is quality time spent with long-lost family members. A reunion crammed with a frenzy of activities leaves little time for visiting and re-establishing those family ties that give us a sense of “roots” and much-needed permanence (in our otherwise fast-paced mobile society).
Whether your reunion is centered around a potluck picnic in a neighborhood park or a on weekend cruise, try to keep the focus more on family and less on activities that, while entertaining, may only serve to distract from a significant and memorable event in each guest’s lives.
3. Gather Input. Polling expected attendees for their ideas will help ensure you don’t set a reunion date that conflicts with other family events such as graduations, weddings, anniversaries, etc. Should it be a loosely-structured informal gathering or an activity-filled extravaganza?
4. Be Decisive, Not Divisive. In the early planning stages, not every idea needs to be practical – it’s more important that everyone feel heard. As you move forward, consider the factors, weigh their importance against your family’s values and mission of the gathering and trust that the best ideas will prevail. And if a difficult choice must be made to accommodate a family member’s particular needs, not to worry – there’s always next year.
4. Spread the Word. If your motto is “The more the merrier,” then you’ll want to take advantage of free resources such as those on FamilyReunion to help you announce your gathering. Reunions can be a great opportunity to reconnect missing branches of families. Update your contact list and let everyone know early on via social network sites, email and/or snail mail there’s a gathering in the works. Then send helpful reminders at two months and again at two weeks before your big event.
5. Mix Up Your Families. No, I don’t mean you should confuse them. Just like when arranging where guests sit at a wedding reception, do your best to get family members to mingle. Social activities and games that get folks moving around work best. I also like the idea of having a member from each branch of the family stand up and share that family’s struggles, achievements and milestones ???????? The kind of stuff my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles used to share in their frequent letters. These days, letter-writing seems to be a lost art, so a reunion is a great opportunity to move past presumptions about other family members and really get to know them and their experiences, share the burdens and acknowledge each other’s accomplishments. In my experience, the deeper connections that come from more intimate sharing can be life-changing!
6. Delegate. We are all busy these days and, at first, it may be difficult to recruit helpers. But it is surely worth the effort. Whether you’re planning a gathering for a few dozen or a few hundred guests can overwhelm any of our schedules – especially as the big day or weekend approaches. I speak from experience, here friends!
The more you can “spread the joy,” you will turn passive attendees who may simply arrive and wait to be entertained into participants with a real sense “ownership” of the event.
A great example of the success of delegating is at the largest family reunion in the U.S., the Annual Hatfield & McCoy Reunion Festival in Pikeville, Kentucky.
Ron and Bo McCoy, descendants of the famous feuding families – along with hundreds of volunteers – have turned their reunion into a festival that’s spread across three counties and into two states (Kentucky and West Virginia) – complete with corporate sponsors and news media in attendance from around the world!
Certainly their event has grown quickly but, to me, the real success of the Hatfield & McCoy Reunion is that Ron and Bo say they actually enjoy going to their reunion and catching up with family and friends. And isn’t that what we all want?
7. Location. Many reunions are held at geographic midpoints between concentrations of family members, while most – especially ones with longer guest lists – are held near the primary host’s location. A gathering of the clan can involve a lot of moving parts and it can be advantageous in the planning and execution for the host to access products and services conveniently. By rotating hosts each year, everyone can count on a gathering near them at some point in the cycle.
Another strategy is to hold your event near the most senior of your attendees, not only as a matter of respect to them and deference to their position, but it may make a big difference in whether they’ll be able to attend, since long-distance travel can become increasingly difficult as we age.
8. Be Stubbornly Flexible. Any good plan anticipates the challenges to a reasonable level of detail. When you and your committee (and any vendors such as professional planners, caterers, tour operators, transportation providers, etc.) know what needs doing and when and how to do it, it can be a magical thing to behold.
Top event planners can tell you, however, an event isn’t a success because of strict adherence to the approved course, but in your ability to adapt that plan to the reality of moments as they actually unfold.
I’ve experienced this often on film sets where throughout each day creative people, encountering obstacles that could thwart their success, relentlessly pursue their common goal to create entertaining experiences for their audiences.
When blindsided by the unanticipated in the midst of your gathering, pause for a deep breath and to help focus your attention picking the best of the array of possible solutions (some of which weren’t even “in the plan”). Ultimately, that very moment could become one of the more cherished of the gathering. Just as in life.